José Santos Zelaya

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Not to be confused with José Manuel Zelaya, former Honduran President.
This name uses Spanish naming customs: the first or paternal family name is Zelaya and the second or maternal family name is López.
José Santos Zelaya
Jose Santos Zelaya cph.3a03378.jpg
President of Nicaragua
In office
25 July 1893 – 21 December 1909
Vice President Anastasio J. Ortiz 1893–1894 Francisco Baca 1894–1896
Preceded by Joaquín Zavala
Succeeded by José Madriz
Personal details
Born José Santos Zelaya López
1 November 1853
Died 17 May 1919 (aged 65)
New York City
Political party Liberal Party

José Santos Zelaya López (1 November 1853 Managua – 17 May 1919 New York City) was the President of Nicaragua from 25 July 1893 to 21 December 1909.

Early life[edit]

He was a son of José María Zelaya Irigoyen, born in Nicaragua, and his mistress Juana López Ramírez. His father José María was married to Rosario Fernández.


Zelaya was of Nicaragua's liberal party and enacted a number of progressive programs, including improving public education, building railroads, and establishing steam ship lines and enacting constitutional rights that provided for equal rights, property guarantees, habeas corpus, compulsory vote, compulsory education, the protection of arts and industry, minority representation, and the separation of state powers.[1] However, his wish for national sovereignty often led him to policies contrary to colonialist interests.

In 1894, he took control of the Mosquito Coast by military force; it had long been the subject of dispute, home to a native kingdom claimed as a protectorate by the British Empire. Indeed, Nicaragua and before Spain, had always claimed the Caribbean Coast of this country, but the "Zambos" pirates (former African runaway slaves mixed with local Indians) and part of the Misquito Indians (probably with the Sumos and Ramas as well), together with the military support of the British Marines, tried to create a colonial British settlement (Greytown, nowadays Puerto Zelaya). This is similar to the cases of Belize and Guatemala, except that Belize has been an Independent Nation since 1981. Zelaya's fortitude paid off, and the United Kingdom, probably not wishing to go to war for this distant land of the Empire, recognized Nicaraguan sovereignty over the area. The strategic value of this land led to the name "Vía del Tránsito" ("Route of Traffic"). Both the United Kingdom and the USA wanted the control of this route that connected the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Coast across the San Juan River and the Nicaraguan Lake. At this point, the Panama Canal did not exist, and the USA was rising as the new continental power. Cornelius Vanderbilt became the owner of the steamboats in the San Juan River, but he was later expropriated by William Walker. After 1856/1858 Central American War, Costa Rica, allied with some Nicaraguans Nationalists forces and later with the Armies of the three other Republics of Central America, were defeated in a bloody war by the North American Filibuster William Walker. Walker wanted to annex these five Independent Republics to the USA and bring back slavery in Central America, which had was abolished since 1824. Years later, the Nicaraguan Conservative party became opposed to foreign invasion, because of the Liberal internal divisions during Walker's occupation. Nonetheless, Conservative Oligarchy (mainly from Granada in the South) was later incapable of modernizing all Nicaragua. On the contrary, Zelaya was a Liberal member of the military, as well as an educated leader, a regular Freemason, and an Anti-imperialist fighter. He had the support of other Liberal leaders of Central America (Guatemala and Costa Rica had a Liberal Revolution in 1870, El Salvador as well).

Reelection, possibility of a canal, and response from the US[edit]

José Santos Zelaya was reelected president in 1902 and again in 1906.

The possibility of building a canal across the isthmus of Central America had been the topic of serious discussion since the 1820s, and Nicaragua was long a favored location. When the United States shifted its interests to Panama, Zelaya negotiated with Germany (who happened to be in the middle of a cold war with the U.S over Caribbean ports) and Japan in an unsuccessful effort to have a canal constructed in his state. Fearful that president Zelaya might generate an alternative foreign alignment in the region, the U.S. labeled him a tyrant in opposition to U.S. planned hegemony.[citation needed]

José Zelaya had the project of reuniting the Federal Republic of Central America, with, he hoped, himself as national president. With this aim in mind, he gave aid to liberal federalist factions in other Central American nations. This threatened to create a full scale Central American war which would endanger the United States Panamanian canal and give European nations, such as Germany, an excuse to intervene to protect the collection of their bank's payments in the region or if failing that then demand a land concession.

The Zelaya administration had growing friction with the United States government, for example while the French government had inquired to the U.S. whether a loan to Nicaragua would be deemed unfriendly, the U.S. Secretary of State required the loan to be conditional on U.S. relations. After the loan was pending on the Paris stock exchange, the U.S. further isolated Nicaragua by claiming any money Zelaya would receive "would be without doubt spent to purchase munitions to oppress his neighbors" and in "hostility to peace and progress in Central America." The US State Department also demanded that all investments in Central America would also need be approved by the U.S. as a means to protect U.S. interests and to overthrow president Zelaya according to a French minister.[2]

The U.S. started giving financing aid to his Conservative and Liberal opponents in Nicaragua who broke out in open rebellion in October 1909, led by Liberal General Juan J. Estrada. Nicaragua sent its forces into Costa Rica to suppress Estrada's pro U.S. destabilizing forces, but U.S. officials deemed the incursion as an affront to Estrada's aims and attempted to coerce Costa Rica into acting first against Nicaragua, but Foreign Minister Ricardo Fernández Guardia assured Calvo that Costa Rica was determined "not to enter such dangerous actions as those proposed by Washington." It "considered the joint action proposed contrary to the Washington treaty and desired to maintain a neutral attitude."[3] Costa Rican officials considered the United States a more serious threat to Central American peace and harmony than Zelaya's Nicaragua. Costa Rica Foreign Minister Fernández Guardia insisted, "We do not understand here what interests can the Washington government have that Costa Rica assumes a resolutely aggressive position against Nicaragua, with the danger of compromising the observation of the...conventions of December 20, 1907.... It is in Central America's interest that U.S. action with respect to Nicaragua should assume the character of an international conflict and in no sense the character of an intervention tolerated and even less solicited or supported by the other signatory republics of the Washington Treaty.[4] So Costa Rica, even the fact that came itself from a kind of small civil Counter-Revolution in 1889 against Liberal-Military regime, never was an accomplice of USA Imperialist Policy against Nicaragua in those times. ( Gregorio Selser: "Nicaragua, de Walker a Somoza". México DF: Mex-Sur, 1984; selser, Gregorio: "Sandino, general de hombres libres. Buenos Aires: Pueblos Unidos de América, 1955"; Selser, Gregorio: "La restauración conservadora y la gesta de Benjamín Zeledón": Nicaragua-USA, 1909-1916. [Managua?]: Aldilà Editor, 2001; Selser, Gregorio: "Cronología de las intervenciones extranjeras en América Latina (Tomos 1 y 2)": publicado postumamente.) On the contrary, some Liberals from Costa Rica exiled in Nicaragua during Zelaya's regime. Liberals returned to the Government in Costa Rica with the polemic President Ascensión Esquivel Ibarra (1902-1906), who was born in Nicaragua and later with the first Government of President Ricardo Jiménez (1910-1914). Liberal returned in Civil and a Democratic way to Costa Rica with the popular and progressive Government of Alfredo Gonzalez Flores (1914-1917), overthrow by the short Dictatorship (1917 -1919) of Federico y Joaquín Tinoco, during I World War. Political Liberalism in Latin America was different from nowadays Neo-Conservative or Neo-Liberalism in Economy. On the contrary, old Political Liberalism mixed with Anti-Imperialism and Nationalism became in some Latin American countries,(such as Mexico after Revolution, Ecuador with Eloy Alfaro, Colombia with Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, etc.), an ideology that represented the interests of the lower popular classes before Socialism. Of course it wasn't always like that, in other countries of Latin America. For example, specially for Nicaragua, when Somoza and his family Dictatorship with the support of USA, claimed himself as "Liberal" betraying Zelaya, Benjamín Zeledón, and Sandino Democratic and Anti-imperialist political heritage.

US sets up base of operations in Nicaragua[edit]

U.S. Marines leaving New York City in 1909 for deployment in Nicaragua. Then-Colonel William P. Biddle, in charge of the detachment, is in civilian clothes at right.

Officers of Zelaya's government executed some captured rebels; two United States mercenaries were among them, and the U.S. government declared their execution grounds for a diplomatic break between the countries which later led to formal intervention. At the start of December, United States Marines landed in Nicaragua's Bluefields port, supposedly to create a neutral zone to protect foreign lives and property but which also acted as a base of operations for the anti-Zelayan rebels. On 17 December 1909, Zelaya turned over power to José Madriz and fled to Spain. Madriz called for continued struggle against the mercenaries, but in August 1910 diplomat Thomas Dawson obtained the withdrawal of Madriz. Thereafter the U.S. called for a constituent assembly to write a constitution for Nicaragua and the vacant presidency was filled by a series of Conservative politicians including Adolfo Diaz. During this time, through free trade and loans, the U.S. exercised strong control over the country.


  1. ^ José Santos Zelaya: President of Nicaragua, 5-18; Adán Selva: Lodo y ceniza de una politica que ha podrido las raices de la nacionalidad nicaragüense ( Managua, 1960), 48-49; Gregorio Selser, Nicaragua de Walker a Somoza ( Mexico, 1984), 82.
  2. ^ MAE to Jean Jules Jusserand, May 17, 24, June 4, 1909, Jusserand to MAE, May 22, July 1, 1909, Henry White to Pichon, May 28, 1909, Min. Finances to MAE, May 29, 1909, MAE to Min. Finances, July 2, 1909, CP 1918, Nic., Finances, Emprunts, N. S. 3, AMAE, Paris (copies in F 30 393 1: folder Nic., Amef); Tony Chauvin to MAE, July 28, 1909, Pierre Lefévre-Pontalis to MAE, July 30, Aug. 26, 1909, CP 1918, Hond., Finances, N. S. 3, AMAE, Paris (copies in F 30 393 1: folder Hond., Amef); Chauvin to Morgan, Harjes and Company, July 31, 1909, Chauvin to Min. Finances, Aug. 3, 1909, MAE to Min. Finances, Sept. 14, 1909, F 30 393 1: folder Hond., Amef.
  3. ^ Ricardo Fernández Guardia to Calvo, Nov. 23, 1909, MRE, libro copiador 170, AN, CR; Fernández Guardia to Calvo, Nov. 25, 1909, MRE, libro copiador 157, AN, CR; Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy, 173-74, presents the case for no U.S. involvement in the Estrada revolt; Challener, Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 289-99, Healy, "The Mosquito Coast, 1894-1910," present the case for U.S. assistance to Estradai Lewis Einstein to Sec. St., Nov. 9, 1911, RG 59, Decimal files, 711.18/4, U.S. & CR (M 670/r 1). See also de Benito to MAE, Oct. 10, 1910, H1609, AMAE, Madrid.
  4. ^ Fernández Guardia to Calvo, Nov. 27, 1909, MRE, libro copiador 170, AN, CR; Calvo to Fernández Guardia, Nov. 28, 1909, MRE, caja 188, AN, CR; Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy, 206; Bailey, "Nicaragua Canal, 1902-1931,"6, 10.